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Chasing the Tea Horse Road in Pu'er

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The Tea Horse Road traces its roots back to the Tang Dynasty. Tea and other products were transported to Tibet to be traded for much needed horses. The Tea Horse Road starts in the tea producing regions of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan and winds its way north through Dali, Lijiang, Yangjing and Litang in Sichuan, before eventually ending in Lhasa. Sometimes the tea and horses were transported in stages, having men bring the goods only between two select points on the road. But often, men made the entire journey in one go, able to make one round trip per year.

Our own Tea Horse Road adventure began in the township of Pu'er, approximately 400 kilometers south of Kunming. The excursion passed through some of the mountains and steep valleys that are signatures of the Yunnan landscape. Eventually, the corn and wheat along the roadside gave way to bananas, rubber and, eventually, tea.

Pu'er tea fields
Pu'er tea fields

Driving south out of the city of Pu'er and up into the hills and their accompanying clouds, we entered our first plantation of the trip. Despite being recently purchased by the Deepure Tea Group, the plantations cannot help but feel ancient. Pu'er tea has been cultivated in this part of China for over 1,700 years and was originally known as pucha (普茶), or 'common tea'.

It was a winter morning when we visited, so the fields were quiet and empty of people. In spring or fall, early mornings would see these fields crowded with farmers harvesting the newest and freshest tea leaves of the day. With clouds slowly blowing through — sometimes giving way to bright sunshine and blue skies, but sometimes closing up altogether — the tea fields put on an excellent show. We wandered through the plantation, up and down slopes and into a few villages, before heading back to Pu'er. The villages through which we passed were also quiet, save for the typical dogs and geese wandering about. Not many people around to talk to and get more information about the fields. One gets the idea that being company-owned, the villages have a more seasonal rhythm than in the past.

A teahouse in Yiwu
A teahouse in Yiwu

Once we had a taste of Pu'er tea, we wanted to get to the start of it all — to the origins of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道). Yunnan has six famed tea mountains, all of which are located in Xishuangbanna. Roughly 200 kilometers southeast of Pu'er, lies the village of Yiwu (易武), near the border of Laos. This is where one of the famous mountains is located, and is also one of the starting points of the trade route.

Today, however, Yiwu is a village in transition. Centuries-old houses are quickly being replaced by the standard cement cubes and bathroom tiled buildings that are so common throughout the country. We were happy to arrive when we did, as only a few of the houses had been changed. However, construction down the road made it clear that many more such buildings were on the way. We stopped in one house and talked to the owner, who said his home has stood for over 200 years and housed seven generations of tea farmers and merchants. Previously, the house had been a tea shop in the village.

Home church in Yiwu (image credit: Cheng Lin)
Home church in Yiwu (image credit: Cheng Lin)

After wandering throughout the early morning, we heard music and singing voices coming out of one small house. A church service! Hymns were being sung by the local people in a converted home. We decided to stop in and have a look. I was given a hymnal written in pinyin and Chinese characters, and tried my best to follow along. I looked over the other hymnals and bibles. Some had Chinese with pinyin, some were written in Yi minority script, while others were in Hani and Romanized Miao. Miao was particularly interesting to see in the Roman alphabet, and contained a lot of X's and Z's.

We ate lunch with another farmer that moved to the region from Honghe to make a living in rubber farming. Tea, rubber and bananas are by far the biggest industries in the region and a big year was coming up for him as, after a decade of waiting, his rubber trees had finally matured to the point of production. He explained to us that Christianity had only recently spread to the village about two or three years ago. The man was not clear how or why it had come to Yiwu, but judging by local church attendance and enthusiasm, it had become quite popular.

Miao woman making clothes outside her home
Miao woman making clothes outside her home

After lunch, we went to purchase some tea leaves. We met a shop owner, had some tea, and discussed the goings on of Yiwu. The shop owner told us she is planning to sell more than ten acres of her land to a big tea company. Currently, the tea farms in Yiwu are all privately operated, but that is going to change fast. It will bring more development and cash into the region, but hopefully not at the expense of the local culture.

After Yiwu, we decided to continue following the Tea Horse Road and check out one of the first stopping points along the old trail, the tiny village of Nakeli (那柯里村). After walking along the caravan route, this would be the first village that merchants would reach after leaving Pu'er. The town has been renovated by the government, but has kept its traditional houses and atmosphere.

There was a working watermill in the village that was still grinding away, making cornmeal, when we showed up. The Tea Horse Road still winds its way through the village, and we were able to hike along for several kilometers. One can still see the centimeters-deep hoof prints in the stone path, as well as marks left by the innumerable walking sticks of merchants.

The town of Nakeli
The town of Nakeli

We had lunch at the only restaurant in town, and were able to speak with the owner. We had many questions about the Tea Horse Road, and he said that his grandmother, Luo Wenfang (罗文芳), would be better able to answer them. Mrs Luo is 93 years-old and impeccably sharp. She grew up during the times of the tea merchants and worked as a stable hand. Her job was to feed and take care of the horses while the merchants traded wares or rested at one of the nearby inns. She mentioned the village was too small and too close to nearby Ning'er (宁洱) to have a big marketplace. Also, only the wealthier merchants trading goods such as tools, jewelry, and other expensive products — including opium — were able to stay at the inns and pay for stables.

Interestingly, the men transporting tea were often too poor to stay in the towns and villages and would often just sleep in the wild taking care of the horses on their own. But Luo's family actually did very well during the days of the Tea Horse Road and became quite rich. This caused them some trouble during the Cultural Revolution, when the poorer locals in the area accused them of being landlords. They fled the village and went to Ning'er for a couple of years before returning with proof from the government that they had not received wealth from land ownership, but instead from the Tea Horse Road.

Luo Wenfang and her son
Luo Wenfang and her son

The Cultural Revolution brought the automobile to Nakeli, signaling the end of dependence on horses. Luo's family subsequently lost most of their wealth. She said she once would wear her qipao (旗袍) almost daily, but then she had to cut it up to make baby clothes. Her grandson, with his restaurant, has brought some prosperity back to the family. As we spoke, Luo's son happily showed off relics from the heyday of the Tea Horse Road.

They had horse bells, a lantern, bamboo lunch boxes, a jewelry box and, perhaps most curiously, a small World War II era crate from the United States Army. The man said that the Americans dropped some bombs near the village during the war and he found the crate near the village soon after the war ended. A lot of local history, I thought, in this tiny village, Tea Horse Road and otherwise.

The final stop on our Tea Horse Road tour was Ning'er. After talking to several locals, it turned out that the town was a big crossroads and market town on the trade route, not Pu'er as we had expected. Ning'er was also once the location of the government offices for the entire Pu'er region.

Tea Horse Road artifacts
Tea Horse Road artifacts

These days, the town has quieted down a bit and the government has moved to Pu'er. However, the parks, shops, and people still hold onto some of the Tea Horse Road charm. One can find hints of tea culture in the food as well. There is a spicy sauce made with tea, and is mainly used for dipping freshly steamed tea leaves. A tad bitter these days, but come spring, it should be quite tasty! The Pu'er tea industry is growing rapidly and bringing change to these quiet villages. We recommend going as soon as possible to catch a glimpse of the glory days of the most famous ancient trade route in Yunnan.

Getting there

Beginning from Pu'er, buses to Yiwu take roughly five hours. Reaching Nakeli is a bit more difficult. First, one must go to Pu'er and hire a car, as it seems no public buses pass through Nakeli. This trip takes takes about 90 minutes. Ning'er can be reached by buses departing from Kunming's South Bus Station.

All uncredited images: Michael Harrell

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Nice article Michael, thanks for sharing your experience. I share your sadness at seeing all of the old buildings being destroyed.

I can resolve the question of the toponym. Today's Ning'er is the actual, real and original Pu'er, which lends its name to the tea. Today's Pu'er is the actual, real and original Simao, which I am led to believe has significantly less of a historical connection to the tea, except perhaps as a trans-shipment point and/or local political center.

Somewhere in the mid noughties the prefectural government renamed Simao to Pu'er, in what I have been told as hearsay from many quarters was basically a bid to attract greater recognition and business to the prefectural capital (Simao) in the then-thriving and highly speculative Pu'er tea trade.

It is my distinct impression from 15 years here including 2.5 living in Xishuangbanna that there were multiple trade routes in pre-modern times. I recall reading that Yiwu, which I have also visited multiple times (sadly, last time they had imprisoned a forest monkey in an undersized cage in the middle of the village), actually traded north via Jianshui and/or Shiping. Whether that is true or not, and what the evidence may be, I am not sure, but it definitely the impression I've gained from reading. There are probably lots of Ming and Qing era texts describing the area.

Definitely by the Ming Dynasty there were trade routes as far south as Ayutthaya and as far west as India (via Baoshan and Tengchong) from Kunming, these are recorded by Zheng He's voyage and Marco Polo, for instance.

If you are interested in doing some more research, you may be able to garner some specific local trade route evidence by searching Geoff Wade's 'Southeast Asia in the Mingshi Lu' resource at www.epress.nus.edu.sg/msl/ ... though many place names have changed, and all I could see was that mining is mentioned as an industry in the area in the 30 Mar 1589 entry at www.epress.nus.edu.sg/msl/entry/2672?hl=%22Pu-er+Tong+Hai%22

The mingshi lu is great to read on a rainy day, nice to see someone else found it.

The "tea horse road" is a bit of a brand, Voltaire is right there were several routes, and that they went further than Lhasa. South too. And, of course, not only tea on the route. In colonial descriptions people in Moulmein could sometimes stumble on tibetans venturing that far for trade.

What always bothers me is the impression about "The Tea Horse Road" of "men making the entire journey in one go" like stated in this article. That is indeed the thing that is told at the official Tea Horse Road theme parks (like Nakeli) all over the province. But if you only do only a little more research, you find that there were indeed multiple routes with multiple wares. Not moving statically like a group of men in one go from point to point, but much more functioning as a network, stretching far over current national borders into Southeast Asia. Then winding through Yunnan from one "bazi" to another with different pack animals and different ways to pack them. Who in their right minds would think that a pack animal from southern Yunnan would be fit to cross 5000+ meters passes up in Tibet? Those places involved other people, animals, different wares, and a completely different style. It's an interesting given indeed that stuff from Southeast Asia indeed ended up in Tibet, but to imagine it was a single group of people delivering it there from point to point, that's far out. It was much more dynamic and diverse than this story of "the" Tea Horse Road that is marketed everywhere for the sake of appeasing tourists. Thanks for the article, but if you're interested in this piece of history, it wouldn't hurt to do a little more research.

@Flengs: "It's an interesting given indeed that stuff from Southeast Asia indeed ended up in Tibet".

In first half of 20th C Lhasa market had abundant of products. Swedish matches, Afghanistan turqoise, Bengali cowries, Yunnan tea, English products from Calcutta - even fake Italian coral. It would maybe be about time someone made sense of this Tibetans trading network overall.

In my understanding, some Tibetans did very long trade journeys, e.g. there are descriptions and photos of Tibetans buying tea in Meghai area (Xishuangbanna) dressed in furs and with mastiffs. Maybe to entrance of higher mountains, you are right that the pack animals would probably not make it. Not a good idea to bring a yak to Banna either. In Hedins descriptions they cut open the noses of their packhorses when crossing to "Transhimalaya" in order for horses to be able to get more oxygen.

Anyway, the point was that some Tibetans seem to have had very long trade routes they did.

Flengs and Peter are both right, according to what I have read.
Note that history is often simplified for tourism purposes - note the idea that there was a single Great Wall, that it is the only manmade structure visible from the moon, that place X or Y has been 'part of China' since the Han Dynasty, or since the Ming, or whatever, etc., when in truth different dynasties had different frontiers, different kinds of relations with peoples near the frontiers, and that what is today's China was often divided politically. Histories of PRC border provinces such as Yunnan exhibit these various situations most clearly and give one a deeper understanding of what modern nation-state claims are and are not worth.

@Flengs Almost certainly no one animal would make the entire round trip (though one could assume that a horse might have). I was also skeptic that any one man would even attempt the journey in one go. Mrs. Luo and her son both said that there were indeed several traders that did the entire route, round trip, once per year. Agreed unlikely they used the exact same animal throughout the route, but upon what I've read and what I heard, many men couldn't afford pack animals and would transport it themselves. Many people we talked to on the trip mentioned guys carrying upwards of 90kg of tea on their backs. I'm sure you've seen pictures as well. Liu Yong's book also mentions people making the entire route. It was more profitable. As stated in the article, tea was arguably the least expensive product traded on the tea horse road. All kinds of wares were traded. This article was meant as an introduction, wasn't planning to go into all the details.

Khampas ventured far. They were also famous ruffians and you didnt want to stumble on Khampas, maybe except in daylight at Lijiang Sifang Jie. In kids songs already about robbing travellers. (Mentioning that, I was once harassed by young monks wanting money in Litang.) Khampas were the ones robbing Heinrich Harrer and his pal (7 yeras in Tibet), and of whom Alexandra David-Neel wrote that "they shoot first and ask later". So to add somehing to The Mike here, if anyone did the entire trip, (and there are stories it took 6 months from Lhasa to South Yunnan) then it was the Khampas.

Thanks to Mike for sharing the story. Nakeli looks old on photo, is it all recently built?

Thanks everyone for the invaluable input to this interesting discussion. I might have gotten a little heated up with this singular story you hear so often, the "Great Wall of China" story and the "Tea Horse Road" story, which definitely glances way over the complexities that make it interesting in the first place. @peter thanks for sharing with us that vivid image of the Khampa ruffians traveling afar in the good old days. I'm sure that makes for some fantastic stories! I'm sure I'll have to dive into that a little more. Do you recommend any specifically engaging sources on their exploits?

According to a friend, Nakeli was completely destroyed by a large earthquake and has been rebuilt as a 'tea road theme park'. I don't know the sources for this, but I know I can trust the friend who told me.

@Mike, please let me apologize for accusing you of doing "too little research", that was not fair for I can also see that the article was only meant as an introduction. Like I said, I usually get an automatic allergic reaction when I think stories lack the complexities they deserve, and that is more to blame to the mainstream tourist industry that is abound everywhere then to you in your quality as a travel writer. Again, no offence and thanks for your article. I didn't go into the trouble to write it myself.

@flengs...books on ruffian khampas. Oh well. Cant think of a single book right now, its about putting pieces together, aint it. As we know, khampas were infamous still well after 50's, they went across Tibet to Mustang and established guerillas. Some were even flown to US for training. Due to this background theres quite a few books.

Some of this fascinating history can be dug up from a good deal of missionaries, explorers and plant hunters observations. About missionaries, as long as it aint only about "god saves" - and it rarely is - then you can find quite a few interesting observations. There were a bunch of them up in Kham areas, e.g. Batang, crossing to Chung-tien ("Shangrila") and so on. Plant Hunters went in their plant-crazes far and wide. Joseph Rock did similar routes several times. How about them plant explorations of Kingdon-Ward? Great observations on nature too. Explorers.....Andre Migot, Major Davies, you name it.

A way to dig up a good deal of good ol' stories is to search for keywords on old names. Kangding was Tachienlu, Lijiang Likiang Lichiang. Kunming Yunnanfu Yunnansen etc. French words widen this approach even more. Personally, when I was putting this picture together a few years back, I made a list of all names of different Yunnan cities. Only Kunming has around 15 names; thats including Kunmings Shan and Mongolian name etc. (As a curiosity this becomes interesting when you start to find pieces of Sanskrit influence on Yunnan.)

Then to get certain books around these areas is another thing. Some can be found in Hong Kong, like the one Major Davies wrote on Yunnan, and is a hell of a pain to find in Asia. Thai University libraries got quite a few, and its OK to access them there. Or how about the old kings library in Kathmandu, thats the Kaiser Library now. Great place with plenty ghosts. A good deal of books on good old Yunnan. Down in Hanoi, the French left behind a good deal of Yunnan stuff. Of course, Internet. What else. Mandarinbooks. Theres quite a recent book from Jeff Fuchs too on Kham tea caravans. It takes some effort to dig, but to come to the realization on what a fascinating place Yunnan has been, and all the stories related, makes the effort worthwhile. Aint it so..

Yes, I know it does. The digging always goes on. It's interesting you mention those libraries in Thailand and Nepal.

The first information about trading tea and changing with horses in Yunnan is from 1661. Before this time, all the tea and horse changing was in Sichuan and Shaanxi prov. - the tea was heicha, Sichuan kang zhuan and Shaanxi fu, qing, hei and hua zhuan. But the first time was Song dynasty, the Tang dynasty is very wrong but yes, is often write in Chinese books.

During Qing dynasty, the quantity of tea transported by horses from Yunnan to Lhasa was very small. Most of the tea was sold and consumed in Lijiang, Shangrli La area. Only small amount was sent to Central Tibet.

The most popular time when really large quantity of puer tea - mostly mushroom shape or tuo shape, was in 1930.1940s. But at that time they already use short way crossing Myanmar, they used horses but also cars and trains.

Of course there was many another products transport from Yunnan or from Laos, there was also way to Beijing special for give top grade teas and other stuff to King. But the trading tea and changing with horses like in Sichuan and Shaanxi was not too old, just firs record is from 1661.

The Tea Horse Road, or Cha Ma Gu Dao is relative new name, start use in 1980s or early 1990s for just commercial things like tourism and promotion puer tea.

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